Did you know Abba had a fifth member? Well, it ended in tears
The Beatles had Brian Epstein, Led Zeppelin had Peter Grant and Elvis had Colonel Parker. Abba had Stig Anderson
As the movie Mama Mia, Here We Go Again launches in South Africa, we look at the history of the original band Abba:
In the summer of 1975, Stig Anderson and his teenage daughter Marie were sitting at the kitchen table of their holiday cottage on the island of Viggsö, part of the sprawling archipelago to the east of Stockholm. The Abba manager was having a much-needed family break after an intense 18 months that had seen his band win the Eurovision Song Contest and become an international pop phenomenon.
As father and daughter chatted, there was a knock on the door. Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson walked into the kitchen with twinkles in their eyes. Abba’s male half had come straight from their songwriters’ hut a short distance away. They plonked a cassette recorder on the table. “They said: ‘We’ve made this song. Please have a listen,’” Marie recalls. The demo was rough. But what she heard was unforgettable.
“It was Björn and Benny on piano and guitar. They were clowning around [really]. They played the song and it was so good. It sounded awful but I really liked it … It was the most incredible song,” says Marie.The track in question was Dancing Queen. A year later it would top the charts in 17 countries from Mexico to New Zealand and from Russia to America, where it would be Abba’s first and only number one.
As holiday memories go, it’s a pretty special one. But the situation was far from unusual. Stig Anderson was Abba’s fifth member, and for decades he was inseparable from the band. As well as managing them, Anderson was instrumental in putting the group together in the first place. He also founded the record and production companies to which they were signed, wrote many of their lyrics and guided them to worldwide success and unimaginable wealth.
The Beatles had Brian Epstein, Led Zeppelin had Peter Grant and Elvis had ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker. But Abba had Stig Anderson. And his daughter Marie had a ringside seat. “Abba were like family, all of them,” she says.
However, as in many Abba songs, a lustrous façade masks a slightly more bittersweet reality. As their fame and wealth grew throughout the 70s and early 80s, Abba and their manager’s business interests became increasingly tangled and complicated. In 1990, the band’s representatives filed a lawsuit against their former record company.Although it was settled out of court, the high-profile rift sullied one of the most unique and successful partnerships in pop music. Anderson died in 1997, his relationship with most of his former protégés never having quite fully recovered.
So who was Stig Anderson? How did he create a musical juggernaut in the relative pop backwater of Sweden and why exactly did relationships sour? And with the imminent release of film sequel Mama Mia! Here We Go Again, what would the band’s former fifth member make of the unending Abba revival?
Anderson was a name on the Swedish music scene long before Abba donned their first platform heals. A childhood of poverty meant that he “started working aged eight to get money”, his daughter explains. His entrepreneurial spirit saw him turn his natural talent for songwriting into a livelihood.
Numerous “schlager” hits in the late 1950s (referring to the saccharine style of pop music at the time) encouraged Anderson to form a publishing company, Sweden Music. Three years later he launched a record company called Polar Music.Anderson’s modus operandi was to buy the rights to hits from overseas, rewrite them in Swedish and release them in Scandinavia. A maverick micro-manager with a hot temper, Anderson liked to be on top of every detail of the recording process. When in the autumn of 1963 Anderson’s partner in Polar, Bengt Bernhag, sent him to check out a talented boy band called The West Bay Singers, he could only have dreamed of the journey that was about to start.
Anderson impressed the West Bay members by arriving to meet them in the town of Västervik in a white Volvo P1800, the car that Roger Moore drove in TV series The Saint. His enthusiasm and charisma impressed them too. The band, which included a teenage Björn Ulvaeus, duly signed with Polar.
Through touring Sweden, the band – renamed The Hootenanny Singers – met with another well-known group, the Hep Stars, whose members including Benny Andersson. In 1966, Ulvaeus and Andersson wrote their first song together.
Given Abba’s later success, it would be tempting to assume that the rest was history. It wasn’t. With Ulvaeus now working as a songwriter for Polar, he hired Andersson to join him. The pair’s success was modest, a low point being the soundtrack for the 1970 sexploitation film Inga II (The Seduction of Inga).However both men were now in relationships: Ulvaeus with a singer called Agnetha Fältskog, and Andersson with a successful musician called Anni-Frid Lyngstad. On a joint holiday to Cyprus in April 1970, the two couples would sit around and sing. “Björn and Benny made an album in Swedish called Lycka [meaning happiness] and used Agnetha and Frida as back-up singers. It sounded great,” Marie says. The nucleus of Abba was formed.
Stig Anderson was hands on from the start. When the group won the Eurovision with Waterloo in Brighton in 1974, he was the first “member” on the stage, having written the lyrics. After the show, he and a colleague toured Brighton’s nightclubs with a box of records, handing them out to grateful DJs. Anderson oversaw everything.
As Abba took off, his masterstroke was to negotiate country-specific short-term royalty deals with third-party record companies around the world. This way, his small Swedish company remained in overall control.
It also created competition overseas to have a piece of the Abba action, and allowed him to negotiate high royalty payments. “He was on the phone all the time,” Marie says. “This was before telex and the Internet. He was always speaking to America, Japan, Australia …”Famously quick-tempered, Anderson wouldn’t hesitate in shouting at people who fell short of his expectations or firing off a letters to newspaper editors whose reviewers he thought had been unkind. Marie believes he had ADHD. “He could never sit still. Everything had to happen really fast,” she says.
Between 1973 and 1981, Abba released eight studio albums. They sold millions. Anderson knew the name of the game. In his comprehensive history of Abba, Bright Lights, Dark Shadows, author Carl Magnus Palm writes: “Fifteen years older than his protégés, and a long-time jazz fan, it’s not improbable that pop for [Anderson] was virtually synonymous with strictly commercial, bubblegum music.”
As co-writer of the band’s lyrics, it is unlikely that Anderson was dispassionate about Abba’s considerable artistic achievements. He was a music man through and through. He was also undoubtedly driven by a curious reputational schism: while he was lauded overseas (Billboard magazine named him Trendsetter of the Year in 1974, a rarity for a foreigner), he was unpopular with Sweden’s po-faced left-wing music establishment.
This riled him, says Marie. The trend at the time was for worthy and political music, sung in Swedish. “But Abba were poppy, sounded international and sung in English. Everything was ‘wrong’,” she says. At heart, however, her father was a tough businessman.In 1976 Benny Andersson remarked: “The best thing that has happened to me was coming into contact with Stig. He has taught me the importance of straight economic thinking and an ordered life.”
But Abba’s huge success was causing problems. Cash from all Anderson’s canny royalty deals was flooding in, making the band a high-turnover and low-overhead enterprise. Polar famously had higher profit margins than Volvo. Yet with a top tax rate in Sweden of 85%, the danger was that the money would simply be paid out again. So the decision was made to re-invest this cash in other profitable businesses rather than pay it to the taxman.
Some complex – and perfectly legal – corporate restructuring went on. Rather like The Beatles’ Apple Corps, in 1976 a new umbrella company was formed under which Polar’s various business ventures would sit. According to Palm’s book, the company planned to launch a range of subsidiaries, from a TV production company to a book publisher, and float on the Swedish stock exchange.The year before, half of Polar Music’s shares had been transferred to Harlekin, a company that had been set up to handle Ulvaeus and Andersson’s income from work as musicians and performers. And half of Harlekin had by now been transferred to Fältskog and Lyngstad, giving each Abba member 25% of Harlekin. In other words, the interests of the band, Anderson and the Abba financial machine were inextricably bound together.
Business got surreal. Polar acquired a sports equipment company, and started trading crude oil. Both ventures ultimately failed. It bought a real estate company and launched a successful leasing company, loaning out everything from excavators to computers. In 1979, Abba bought a Swedish bicycle manufacturer called Monark. The idea was that Monark would then acquire Harlekin, allowing Abba to take income from Monark at a lower tax rate.
Polar dabbled in high finance, buying a majority stake in its own investment company. Things became far removed from the business of writing pop hits. As Benny Andersson wryly noted: “Sometimes you get the feeling that the money has created Abba, when the truth is the exact opposite.”By the early 1980s, relationships between Abba and Anderson had cooled slightly. In 1983, around the time that Abba split, the band renegotiated a higher royalty agreement with Polar Music. They thought they had come to an agreement with Anderson but nothing was signed. In 1989, when international music label Polygram bought Polar, Abba discovered that they hadn’t been paid the higher royalty rate they believe they’d agreed. In June 1990, Abba filed a lawsuit against Polar.
Anderson was “very upset”, Marie says. “Stig wanted to go to court because he [believed he] was right and Björn and Benny were wrong. And I believe him because he had never cheated any person in his life,” she says, adding that the band may have been upset because Polar had been sold to a non-Swedish company. The case never made court. Polar paid five million kronor in back payments, Marie says.
“He was very sad about [the case]. Björn and Benny were like his sons, more or less. We went on vacations together. Every time they had a number one hit we’d go to the best restaurant in Stockholm to celebrate. It was sad,” says Marie.
Although Anderson’s relationship recovered with Lyngstad in the intervening years before his death, things were “not as friendly” as they had been with the boys. If nothing else, the cautionary tale suggests that bands, their managers and their business interests should be kept at arms-length. As the saying goes, where there’s a hit there’s a writ.But despite everything, Anderson was given the ultimate honour in death: his funeral in 1997 was broadcast live on national TV, a distinction usually bestowed on royalty. Three members of Abba attended, and Agnetha sent a floral tribute.
I ask Marie what her father would have made of the Abba revival. He died two years before the original Mama Mia! musical kick-started the second wave of Abba mania. “He would have been so happy. They are bigger now than ever,” she says. (Her family still receive income due to her father’s close involvement with the band.)
Marie is still friends with Abba’s members. She saw Frida a few months ago and Björn in the early summer. Next year Abba will tour the world as holograms. Despite their enduring friendship, Marie hopes that the real versions will never reunite: “It’s nice to have memories in your head.”
However she offers a tantalising snippet of what’s to come on the tour. In April, Abba announced that they’ve recorded two new songs, one of which is called I Still Have Faith In You. Marie is one of the few people to have heard it. “I actually started crying. It is such a strong song and very emotional,” she says, before clamming up on further questioning.Decades may have passed, friendships forged and tested. But it seems that the Abba magic that Marie felt in her father’s holiday home in the summer of 1975 is still alive.
– © The Daily Telegraph